The West and Israel have reacted coolly to the Mecca Agreement under which the Palestinian warring factions, Hamas and Fatah, agreed to cease fighting and establish a government of national unity. The message out of Washington and Jerusalem is that nothing has changed and Hamas must accede to the three conditions of recognising Israel, renouncing violence and accepting past peace agreements.
But in taking this stand have the Bush Administration and the Government of Ehud Olmert missed the significance of the deal thrashed out in Islam’s holiest city? The Head of the General Delegation of Palestine to Australia, Izzat Abdulhadi, believes so.
“By signing up to the agreement Hamas, for the first time, expressed its readiness to accept all previous agreements signed by Israel, in particular the Oslo Agreement and the road map [to peace],” he said. “This is a dramatic political development and a radical change within Hamas.”
Speaking at a meeting of the Canberra branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, Mr Abdulhadi said Hamas has taken a huge risk by going this far, potentially alienating itself from radical Islamists who consider Palestine a religious entity which cannot be bargained away either in whole or in part.
“Western Countries will be committing a fatal mistake if they do not recognise the enormity of this and support the emerging Palestinian Unity Government,” he said.
“The continued confrontation with Hamas will not lead to any constructive outcome … progress in this area will increase support for moderate regimes and moderate political positions in the Arab world, strengthening the moderate allies of the United States against the Iranian influence.”
The Mecca Agreement comes at a momentous time for both sides in the Middle East conflict. Last year’s excursion into Lebanon has convinced even the most obdurate on the Israeli right that this is no longer 1967 and Jewish armies cannot sweep all before them in the Middle East. If nothing else it proved that victory in the court of world opinion is at least as important as success on the battlefield.
In fact Hezbollah, using classic guerilla tactics learnt over decades and with sophisticated weaponry supplied by its Iranian sponsors, was able to avoid outright defeat which, of course, it then claimed as a crushing victory.
At the same time Palestinians used the brief interlude when the main attention of the Israelis was elsewhere to re-think their own attitudes. Hamas will never be as strong as Hezbollah, it has less territory to play with, and while it has the capacity to irritate and enrage its powerful neighbour indefinitely, it will do so only at the cost of continuing misery for the Palestinian people as a whole.
The Mecca Agreement is the first result of this new mode of thinking. At first sight it does not offer anything new or that has been acceptable to past Israeli governments - establishment of a Palestinian state within the borders that existed before 1967, with its capital in East Jerusalem - yet this is a fundamental step for Hamas, which previously has insisted the Israeli state has no right to exist.
This is undoubtedly a victory for the pragmatists within Hamas and a determined attempt to ensure the Palestinian people speak with one voice. If Israel can take some small steps in return, as straightforward as releasing Palestinian tax money it has been withholding since Hamas came to power, and freeing up border traffic, it will be the start of a positive momentum which will isolate the extremists on both sides and allow the governments to move on to the bigger issues which confront them.
Already there are voices being raised within Israel urging this course. Writing in the Jerusalem Post newspaper Daoud Kuttab says the attitude of American diplomats to the Mecca Agreement has been “shameful”.
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